The Last Time
...But at my back I always hear
Times winged chariot drawing near...
Part I, Early 2016:
An older gentleman walks three miles around our neighborhood every day -- rain, snow, sleet, or occasionally, shine. Stickman, we called him until I asked his name, dubbed for the large stick he carries swinging and twirling first in one hand and then the other, back and forth as he walks, to get an upper body workout along with his daily constitutional.
I see him often from my office window, and I smile. He's become part of my life, my daily routine, a bright moment in generally an otherwise gray and stress filled day. I admire him for his perseverance. Three miles a day, every day. He tells me that he used to run, but his knees eventually gave out, so now he walks.
He has aged noticeably in the eleven years we've lived in this house. He walks more slowly, swings the stick less strenuously. One day late in autumn, as I smiled seeing him walk by, I had the thought, "I wonder when the last time will be that I see him. I will have no way of knowing when that day will be. How long will it take for me to realize he's never going to walk up my street again?"
I saw him through the autumn and through the early part of winter -- but not for quite some time now. I don't know exactly how long -- at least two or three months. I can't say in what month I last saw him. But I think that we have come to that time when we've seen him for the last time.
I've been thinking about the concept of "the last time" for a while. I have more yesterdays behind me than tomorrows. And the tomorrows will become more and more difficult. Make no mistake, getting old is not for the faint of heart. It's hard work. And nothing gets easier.
I do know that I've ice skated for the last time. My feet hurt at just the thought of putting all my weight on that skinny little blade. Slipping and having a hard landing on the ice could take me out of many activities I still enjoy. It's just not worth it, despite having spent winters in my youth skating on frozen northeastern ponds. As a hardy New Englander, I was laced into skates when I was three years old. Other than running, it was the first sport I took up. The last time I skated? I think I was in college.
When I hike an Adirondack High Peak, I wonder, "Is that the last High Peak I'll ever hike? And will I know?" There are a good number of women who are still hiking them in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, but do they have the arthritis and joint and feet issues I have? I thought I had hiked my last one due to unrelenting issues with my feet and knees, but I've managed to eke out two more in my 50s. As I contemplate this, I realize the last one was almost three years ago now though. Niece Two, who was six when I did trip #2 up Cascade is now nine.
These days, when I stand on top of a mountain, I linger. The young ones start whining about being bored and wanting to get ice cream or go swimming, but I just want to drink in as much as I can and burn the image of the mountains beyond mountains into my memory. I stand there, realizing I can feel the sun hot on my unprotected face, but still reluctant to head back down into the shade below tree line. If only we spent all our lives savoring these moments as the precious gems they are.
I buy my six-week ski pass each year, afraid that if I don't ski one year, I may never come back to it. Running is hard work these days more than the sheer joy it used to be, but I keep at it, for those days when I feel like I'm flying, knowing that flying is very much a relative term. Feeling like I'm flying though, that's what it's about.
I celebrate the completion of each triathlon as if I were the first one across the finish line. Actually, I celebrate the entire race, from start to finish. Once I've taken a few strokes in the water. Until then I'm a nervous wreck. But once I get going, I'm smiling. "I'm doing this. Wow." Even if I feel like I'm going to collapse from heat exhaustion and I'm walking more of the run than running, I have a song in my heart.
I suppose this maybe is what they mean by a mid-life crisis? Wondering when will I run my last race. Pondering whether I've already run my last 15 km. Asking myself if my body will ever cooperate with my desire to run a marathon.
Will I get the chance to repeat the half-marathon distance? When will I participate in my last triathlon? When will I run or swim or bike at all for the last time? When will I carve my final turns into the groomed corduroy of a ski slope? Will I know that it will be my last time?
And if I knew it was my last time, how would knowing change it?
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.
-- Robert Herrick
Part II: December 29, 2019:
What I have learned in the extraordinarily difficult almost four years since I began this post is that the answer to "will this be the last time?" is to treat each time as if it is the last time. Linger at the top of the mountain. Soak in the scenery and camaraderie as you cycle throughout the countryside, whether it's 10 miles or a hundred. Celebrate however many miles you can run and at whatever pace. Raise your hands in triumph at the accomplishment of finishing faster than you have this year or in several years if you manage that. Savor the sense of victory. No, let me change that -- savor the entire run.
Tell people you love them. If it's too hard for them to accept those words, make up code. "Meow" is what I say to Bug. Hug. Hug often and genuinely. Hug some more. When you need a hug, find someone else who needs one and give yours to them.
Smile and make conversation with the man who walks around the neighborhood. Tell him how happy it makes you to see him every day. Maybe even ask him for a hug when you've known him long enough for it not to seem overly weird. We are all here together on this earth, until we aren't, and the more human connections we make, the more whole we are.
Smile -- sing even -- through your endurance events. Smile -- sing even -- through the training for your endurance events and give words of encouragement to others out on their own training journeys. You are so fortunate for this opportunity. Life is hard, training is hard, but you are alive today and no matter how much you are suffering, it is so much harder for those for whom just staying alive is an endurance event.
Cherish each difficult phase your children go through. One day you'll look back and realize that even though they looked so grown up at the time, they were still just babies. College basketball players used to look so much older than my now middle school son. I was watching a game the other night and realized they look like kids he might hang out with these days. Don't wish their lives away waiting for them to be potty trained, to be able to make their own lunch, to be able to stay home alone, to be able to drive themselves to practice. When you're on the sidelines at a game, cheer for them. Find what they're doing well and call it out. Let the coach tell them what they need to do better.
Never walk by a furry member of your family who wants your attention. Short a life-threatening emergency, you can take 20 seconds to give them a pet. They live for you, and their time is so short. When you're holding them at the end, you will never regret the time you spent giving them the love they deserve.
Take photos of beautiful scenery, but remember your loved ones are the beauty of your life. Take even more photos of them. Someday it will be all you have. Capture their voices on video. Oh, how you'll miss their voices.
Tell your Dad you love him. Tell your Mom she's beautiful. When she tells you you're a good kid, tell her she's a good mom. When I said goodbye to my mom for the last time, I had no idea it was our last time. How differently I would have spent that day with her if I'd known. If I'd had the wisdom to spend the day as if it were our last together. If she's having trouble feeding herself, feed her. She fed you when you couldn't manage a fork and spoon. It's an act of love. You'll never regret hearing her marvel with joy at the taste of the home grown tomatoes you're lifting up to her mouth.
I read recently that we're all born with a timeline. Everyone's has an end. We don't know how long ours will be, or how long those of our loved ones will be.
To quote a friend whose brother's life ended in an instant in a horrific motorcycle accident, "You just think everything will keep going the way it was. But it doesn't."
So when is the last time? This moment. This moment is the last time. One day it will be. So yes, it's today. It may be today another hundred times, or it may be today today.
Because you just think everything will keep going the way it was.
Until it doesn't.